Apologies if that title brings back bad memories of ’80s synth-pop (as it does for me).
Last week in my “Great Urban Thinkers” class, we discussed the well-known urban author and critic Mike Davis. In the “Fortress L.A.” chapter of his book City of Quartz, Davis writes
The neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and conjures imaginary dangers. In many instances the semiotics of so-called “defensible space” are just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop. Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces….are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass “Other.” Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately.
Although Davis was writing about the L.A. of the late ’80s, there are certainly examples of upscale pseudo-public spaces in contemporary Vancouver (e.g. Pacific Centre) as well as abundant signs and signals meant to thwart the presence of poor people in our downtown core areas (not to mention selectively enforced bylaws).
Knowing that, I decided to pursue a Davis-related short assignment: to walk around the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with Davis’s words in mind and notice both the overt and the subtle signs of inclusion and exclusion, as well as any barriers, obstacles and warnings related to security and policing.
I had no specific plan when I got off the bus on Hastings, just west of Carrall; I just wanted to wander and see where my eyes and interest took me. It took all of two minutes for a theme to develop. This is hardly an original observation, but wow – so many metal gates. Everywhere. At first I thought I might count them, but it quickly became apparent that it would be easier to count the ungated doorways. These are just a few of the gates I noticed within a few blocks of each other.
Actually paying attention to all these metal gates made me think about the messages they send to neighbourhood residents. Yes, some are more aesthetically pleasing, arguably less intimidating than others, but ultimately, don’t they all convey the same messages?
This is not for you.
We don’t want you here.
How would it feel to spend all one’s days in this kind of environment? I think it would put me in a bad mood – or at the very least contribute to a chronic underlying crankiness and tension. These are feelings I can easily imagine turning to hostility and aggression. Supposedly the gates are sending the same messages to all who pass them, regardless of income, social status or relationship to property, but that’s not really how it works. If the keys to one or more of those gates jangle in your pockets as you walk around, if you’ve been behind those gates or know you could go there if you really wanted to (without breaking the law), the gates you can’t pass through are going to bother you a lot less.
The ubiquity of the gates also made me wonder about the minority of ungated properties. I’d be interested to know why those ones don’t have gates. Is it that they can’t afford to install them, or is it a deliberate decision not to contribute to the siege atmosphere that the gates produce? Perhaps some of the gated businesses inherited their gates when they moved into their spaces and they’d just as soon not have them, though removing them is not a priority. Or perhaps an inventory would show that the ungated properties are the ones that house businesses at low risk for break-in, or that don’t have much to steal. I didn’t keep a tally, but I noticed that the Potluck Café (run by the Portland Hotel Society) and Bean Around the World Café were not gated (unless they have internal gates not visible from the outside). Are the gates concentrated in particular sections of the neighbourhood? I think these are interesting questions and I wonder if anyone has researched them. Seems like a good topic.
All this is not meant to criticize or single out individual businesses for gating their premises. I don’t live or work in the DTES (though in the past I’ve volunteered at two neighbourhood nonprofits). Nor am I familiar with its latest crime stats. I’m sure if I had a business anywhere and I’d been broken into even once, I would at least think about taking steps to prevent it from happening again. No one wants to feel afraid and no one wants to lose money. I should also make clear that I don’t think having a gated property in the DTES and being a socially responsible business owner are mutually exclusive. There may be many examples of gated businesses with owners who hire locally, proactively work with local service agencies and who know and welcome low-income residents to their premises. Kudos to all of them. The points I’m trying to make are about the pervasive presence of metal gates, how that presence and materiality must shape both the psychology and everyday experience of low-income residents, and also how different that is from my experience of my own neighbourhood.
And of course, actual metal gates are not the only ways that messages of belonging, exclusion and defensiveness are communicated. As I walked around, I also thought about fonts. I’m no type designer or historian, but I do have a thing for fonts (particularly of the arts and crafts style). It comes with the word nerd territory. How do the fonts that signs are written in tell people whether they belong somewhere or not? I don’t know exactly, except that we’re all immersed and in the process of interpreting our visual and written culture each day, all day – even those of us who are illiterate or struggle with literacy (perhaps they even more so, since they can’t extract information from the textual content of signs.) Again, I didn’t keep a tally, but I can tell you that as I walked around, I saw very few fonts like this or this:
And a lot more like this.
I’d argue that if even if things were switched around so that the sign using the hip, postmodern font said “all-day breakfast,” low-income people would still be receiving a “stay away” message.
Seeing all the upscale restaurants and stores selling expensive clothing, furniture, jewellry and shoes, I also thought about times I’ve visited ritzy shopping districts in major cities such as New York. Sure, it can be fun to check these areas out and indulge a few fantasies, even though I can’t afford to purchase the items for sale. But would I want to live in an area like that, surrounded by things I can’t afford and by people so much wealthier than I? No way. Actually, I always keep my forays to such areas short because walking around feeling envious is no fun – it puts me in a bad mood. It’s true that some of that bad mood comes from exposure to what I consider to be obscene overconsumption and inequality, but I crave beautiful objects at least as much as the next person. And if I’m prone to fall into an envy-induced funk when I visit places like that for just a couple hours, what must it be like to have to deal with that all the time in your own neighbourhood? Especially when you can’t afford to live anywhere else. Especially when you have had little to no say in the rapid changes taking place around you. Obviously, these are points that DTES residents have been making themselves, loudly and for a long time. They are part of why the recent DTES community planning process (and its results) have been contentious.
Overall, walking through the DTES while trying to see through “Mike Davis eyes” yielded plenty of signals of exclusion and defensiveness – ones I’m certain are instantly decoded by those whom they’re meant for. But they are sign-makers too.